The adage that a heroic movie is only as good as its villains has never felt truer than in “Wonder Woman 1984,” and those villains simply aren’t very good. The net effect is a concerted drag on this eagerly anticipated sequel, making its simultaneous debut in theaters and streaming on HBO Max perhaps the film’s most memorable footnote.
Again directed by Patty Jenkins (who shares script credit with DC veteran Geoff Johns and “The Expendables” writer David Callaham), the movie begins with a gloriously shot flashback sequence, depicting the young Diana on Themyscira, which, given the platform, becomes an island in the stream.
After that, though, the 2 ½-hour story spends far too long setting up its premise and bad guys, who unfortunately hew toward the campy “Superman 3” quadrant of the DC/Warner Bros. filmography. (Those companies are units of WarnerMedia, as is CNN.)
The project finds a reasonably clever way to incorporate Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, who conspicuously died at the end of “Wonder Woman.” Even so, this might be a case where it would have been wiser — for both the title character (Gal Gadot) and the movie — to press onward instead of looking back.
The ageless Diana, rather, has been carrying a torch for more than 65 years when we find her in 1984, hiding in plain sight working at the Smithsonian. It’s there where she meets a mousy, self-conscious new colleague (Kristen Wiig) and encounters a mysterious artifact that sets the plot in motion, including the means of Steve’s unlikely return.
Said object is also being sought by an oil speculator, Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), who has his own nefarious ends in mind. The underlying warning — beware of con men harboring aspirations to power — is one of the messages seemingly woven into the film.
The plot bites off more than the movie can adequately chew, at first feeling a little too much like an individual comic-book story stretched beyond its weight to meet the demands of a blockbuster movie.
The stakes wind up being high enough, but the antagonists represent a huge comedown from the God of War and the German army, and despite the efforts of Gadot and Pine — who makes the most of his anachronistic presence in the ’80s — the film can’t overcome those hurdles.
“Wonder Woman 1984” falls victim to a common failing with sequels, laboring to fill the void left by an origin story. While there are some visually striking action sequences as Diana and her new super-powered foe square off — and Gadot remains extremely appealing in humanizing the character — the last act devolves into a bit of a mess.
The first “Wonder Woman” remains a shining beacon among the modern era of DC’s superhero movies — no small feat, since the 1940s creation’s fantastical arsenal and outfit don’t easily translate to the present day. The magic lasso, particularly, has become a wondrous weapon, used in all sorts of inventive ways.
Still, that lasso makes you tell the truth, and speaking plainly, “Wonder Woman 1984” feels disappointing. That judgment doesn’t detract from the first movie, but in franchise terms, it blunts enthusiasm for the prospect of “Wonder Woman 3,” in whatever year it — and she — might pop up.
“Wonder Woman 1984” premieres Dec. 25 on HBO Max and in theaters. It’s rated PG-13.